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Dyer man recalls escape from World Trade Center’s north tower

The psychological aftershock of 9/11

Since Don Bacso survived the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the 45-year-old Dyer man has become more aware of his surroundings regardless of his whereabouts.

He looks for emergency exit signs in unfamiliar buildings. He suspects that trucks near skyscrapers may be harboring explosives. He’s more aware of which floor he is located in tall buildings. And when he smells jet fuel, his thoughts race back to that day.

“I’m always worried about what if it happens again,” said Bacso, who wears a blue 9/11 bracelet and whose license plate is RMBR WTC (“911” is not available).

He also notices when clocks strike 9:11, or the abundance of American flags in his daily orbit, and he has a newfound appreciation for firefighters and first responders.

Bacso, a history buff whose favorite books as a kid were on the Pearl Harbor attack, routinely talks about his experience to school students, civic groups, and service organizations.

A father of two sons, Nicholas, 11, and Bennett, 9, he also is a school board member, echoing his renewed commitment to civic duty following the attacks.

“I’m a survivor, not a hero,” is his mantra.

But Bacso still keeps a plastic bin of 9/11-related items, including flags, documents, magazines, posters, newspaper clips, his plane ticket to New York City, and a security badge ID to access the World Trade Center that unforgettable day.

In hindsight, he chalks up his experience to both fate and faith.

“By fate, I was there that day. But I had angels looking over me, to make those decisions I made to get out of that building. And not to delay my exit. To go down and not up the stairs. Somebody was watching over me that day.”

His oldest son, whose crib Bacso cried over after his return home on 9/11, often tells him, “Dad, when you’re too old to tell your story, I’ll tell it for you.”

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Updated: November 9, 2011 1:47PM

Don Bacso immediately thought a bomb had exploded in the World Trade Center’s north tower at 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. While working as a computer consultant for a law firm on the building’s 57th floor that morning, the Dyer man was installing software when he felt the impact. The walls shook. The building swayed one way, then the other. The ripples went straight down the building from above. “This is it,” he thought to himself. “This building is going to fall.” He ran to the nearest window and saw debris falling from above, then smoke, then confusion. Someone yelled, “We got hit!”

Within five minutes, he ran to a stairwell and people were already streaming downstairs to safety. He heard screams. He smelled jet fuel. He felt sweaty.

A voice from nowhere said simply, “Go.”

Someone heard on their cell phone from a relative that a commercial jet airliner hit the building. It still didn’t register, though, that it was a terrorist attack.

“It was a good thing that no one knew what actually happened because it would have caused a panic,” he said. “It would have been chaos.”

Instead, they chatted about the possibilities. A bomb? An accident? An attack? They didn’t know.

During the 30 or so minutes in the stairwells, Bacso wondered to himself, “Will I make it home? Will I see my wife again? My mother? My son?”

“Injured coming down! Move to the right!” yelled others as people with charred bodies were carried down the stairs.

At the 44th floor, smoke seeped into the stairwell. He opened the door and a security guard pointed them to another stairwell, swamped with more people.

Near the 20th floor, they passed three firefighters hustling up the stairs. He looked them eye to eye and told them about a woman who was having trouble making it down the stairs.

“Don’t worry, sir, we’ve got it covered,” one firefighter replied in a calm voice.

Such a mild reaction calmed Bacso’s rising fears. He made it down without incident.

At the plaza level, Bacso saw all the windows blown out from the fireball down the elevator shaft, debris were strewn everywhere, and water flooded the ground.

He dashed out of the WTC plaza mall, but turned around to get a glimpse of the carnage behind him. One cop told him, “We don’t know what’s going on.”

His next instinct was to find a phone to call home.

He walked to his Manhattan hotel and he somehow bumped into two women he worked with earlier at the north tower. Together, they made their way to his Club Quarters Hotel, several blocks away.

Days earlier, he tried to reserve a hotel room closer to the towers, but they were all booked. “A godsend,” he thought in hindsight.

‘I’m alive, I’m OK’

At his hotel, the news was confirmed: “Terrorist attack.” He watched the action unfold on TV, including the collapse of the buildings, first one and then the other. He feared the towers may fall toward his hotel, or on his hotel, just a few blocks away.

“I told the women to hang on tight. You could feel the ground shaking, even from that far away,” he said. “A perfectly blue sky went gray and then black. It was surreal, like a volcanic eruption.”

Other survivors from the towers ran down the streets to avoid the collapse and dust storm. Many ran into his hotel lobby. One woman vomited into a bucket to purge the dust and ashes she ingested.

On the second floor of the hotel, he finally found a phone to call his wife, Jennifer, who was five months pregnant with their second child.

“I’m alive, I’m OK,” he told her.

She dropped the phone in shock.

His mother, Joan Frost of Monticello, who just happened to be staying at his Dyer home, picked up the phone and told him to return home safely.

“I didn’t want to go anywhere else but home,” he said.

But first, he had to get out of Lower Manhattan, so he walked 20 or so blocks covered in dust, to a subsidiary office, along with those two women.

They arrived covered in dust, but thankful to be safe. That night, they stayed at a co-worker’s apartment in the city and miraculously found a rental car the next day.

“I threw my luggage in the trunk and said, “Let’s go,’” he said.

“There was nobody on the highway that day heading out of the city,” he said. “We could see the smoke still rising out of Lower Manhattan behind us.”

They arrived back in this region early Thursday morning and Bacso was dropped off first before the two women headed home to Chicago. He turned to the women and said, “I don’t want you to see what’s going to happen here.”

Maybe it was a macho thing. Maybe he wanted to remain strong for as long as possible.

Bacso walked into his home around 4 a.m. His wife and mother were awake, waiting. His son, Bennett, just 18 months old at the time, was sleeping in his room.

Bacso walked up to his baby, crept up to his crib, and there he “lost it.”

“I just stood there and cried,” he said.

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